The .GIF has taken over the Internet. Once the purview of Geocities sites and cheap Internet 1.0 shenanigans, they’ve made a Renaissance as a form of humor and communication in Tumblr posts, Buzzfeed listicles and ways to express our existential dread — they even have their own search engine.
This past Sunday, in a packed screening room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, filmmakers Eric Fleischauer and Jason Lazarus showed the first feature length experimental gif documentary. The film, called twohundredfiftysixcolors, is a historical record of the gif-as-art-form from 1987 to 2013 as told by the medium’s strangest, most viral practitioners. The team behind twohundredfiftysixcolors spent years putting the film together, collecting the gifs by putting out open calls, contacting artists and building a database of over 3000 gifs organized by similar aesthetic themes.
“People would say, ‘You have to have this gif in the film or that gif,’ and we found controversial content which we wouldn’t have thought of on our own,” Mr. Lazarus told the audience. “We had these folders with categories we’d interpret more poetically, and then the collection became more textural.”
The film includes gifs that are high art, low art, pixel art, protest art, porn, vector animations; gifs that are retro, glitchy, broken, gross, political, esher-like — barely twitching cinemagraphs to epileptic nightmares. There isn’t one single, guiding order to the gif bombardment, except for when the film hits a thematic stride and shows similar gifs grouped together around a meme like pizza, loading animations, asses, cats (of course), treadmills, presidential debates, 9/11, blowjobs, or slinkies.
Some of the gifs are offensive, exploitive, pornographic and terribly heteronormative — the curators hope it’s more a reflection of Internet culture than their own archiving — but along the way, there are slices of commentary on art, race, beauty, feminism and the Internet.
“This is a format that has a lot of activist potential,” Mr. Lazarus said. “Artists use it to become this refreshing and memorable single yell in this bummer field. Their fractional presence in the film says a lot about the Internet and the people who have overtaken the steering wheels.”
And yes, it really is an hour and a half long — no voice-over, no music, no narrative framework. Just back to back gifs, beginning with a loading animation and ending with the papal coronation of Pope Francis — a choice that’s meant to anchor the completion of the film at a particular moment in history. After the first two minutes of watching, you think, “Oh god, I’m about to sit through an hour and a half more of gifs. I’m not gonna make it ten minutes.” But then the gif tide washes over you, and you can’t help but stay engaged.
Occasionally, there will be a slump of twinkling pixelated landscapes, sunsets, B.Y.O.B invitations, or some other graphical inanity to make you wonder how long there is left in the film, but then Mitt Romney shows up to plug Big Bird full of bullet holes, and you’re back in the madness again.
For a taste of what twohundredfiftysixcolors is like, check out an exert below of the first six or so minutes of the film:
[vimeo 50031265 w=600 h=441]
If you watched the whole thing in one sitting, alone at your computer, congratulations. Most people can’t do it from the comfort of their personal chairs — not even the curator who showed the film this past Sunday could do the full 97 minutes without taking multiple breaks. It’s one of the reasons the filmmakers think the film wouldn’t play well with a wide Internet release.
“When you’re in the cinema, you can’t stop the movie, so you have to give yourself to the cinematic experience,” Mr. Fleischauer told Betabeat. “It’s like a runners high — you embrace it, you roll with it.”
Regardless, now that the film has made the festival circuit, the creators are getting ready to put it out for anyone to see.
“We’re ready to drop it and make it available to the public, probably on Vimeo,” Mr. Fleischauer said.
When they finally do, be sure to watch it the proper way: on the big screen, with friends and strangers sitting on creaky chairs, in perfect silence, with no way out.